February 19, 2011

The Haves and the Have-Nots

This past week of tennis seems to highlight two things: players on a roll and players trying to get back on one.

At the Copa Claro in Buenos Aires, the field was fraught with local stars and past champions with Nicolas Almagro leading the pack, fresh off a title in Costa do Sauipe. The Spaniard is probably one of the most under-rated guys in the game, outshone by compatriots Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco. Still he's been in and around the top thirty for almost four years and has racked up at least one title a year for the past six -- incidentally, all on clay. On the way to the quarters in Argentina, he's put together a solid 11-2 record on the year, and if he continues to play like he has, I wouldn't be surprised to see him improve it even further.

The 2009 champ here, Tommy Robredo is also trying to keep his momentum going. After a disappointing season last year, he finally seems to be turning things around. He defeated Mardy Fish in Melbourne and took a set from Roger Federer in the fourth round before winning the championship in Santiago. Back in seeding territory for the Majors, he hasn't lost a set yet in Buenos Aires. But with a third round date with David Nalbandian, things are only getting harder from here.

Less successful in recent months has been Albert Montanes. After scoring wins over Juan Carlos Ferrero, Nikolay Davydenko and Roger Federer last year, he'd gone just 1-3 before the Copa. He struggled through his second round versus a tough Fabio Fognini, but if he keeps his cool against Juan Ignacio Chela today, he could recapture his momentum.

The Marseille draw is headlined by Robin Soderling, ranked at a career high #4 in the world and having just successfully defended his title in Rotterdam. Though he was forced into two tiebreaks against marathon-man Nicolas Mahut in his opener, he's been flawless since and earlier today dismissed Dmitry Tursunov, himself a stunning comeback story, 6-1 in the second set, to make his second final in a row.

There he'll face one-time top-ten player Marin Cilic, once my favorite to take this sport by storm. After failing to three-peat titles in Chennai and Zagreb earlier this year, he dropped precipitously in the rankings and lost the seeding in France. But with wins over #7 Tomas Berdych in the quarters and third-seed Mikhail Youzhny in the semis, the Croat has reached his first final in almost a year. He's lost his only previous meeting with Soderling at last year's French Open, but he sure looks like he's playing back at the top of his game.

Things are a little backwards in Memphis, where the hot player is not the top seed, but the wildcard. Milos Raonic began the year ranked #250, but a fourth round run in Melbourne and his first career title in San Jose have vaulted him to #59. The twenty-year-old backed up his win over Fernando Verdasco in the SAP finals with a three-set victory in the first round this week and somewhat easily clawed his way to the semis where today he faces fourth seed Mardy Fish.

In the other Memphis semi it's a former Major champion trying to come back. Juan Martin Del Potro missed most of 2010 recovering from wrist surgery and failed to make a dent in any tournament when he returned last September. Now ranked back in the top three hundred -- his semifinal showing in San Jose boosted him 186 spots -- he's starting to show his stuff again. He's not quite the big server he was in the past, firing off just seven aces in his quarter against Michael Russell, but he is winning again, and if he can get past Andy Roddick today, it could make for a very interesting final.

Of course it's still early in the year, and we certainly don't know yet whether any of these guys will be able to continue their performances thus far in 2011. But things so far are looking promising for both the consistent players and the comebacks. And if they keep it up, those at the very top of the sport might have something to look out for.

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